David French recently wrote in the NYTimes that it would be a good idea to not use “D.E.I.” anymore because it has been misused (1/15/2024). He suggests that an organization could still support “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” without using such a controversial phrase.
People have said similar things about “anti-racism” and “Black lives matter” and even “global warming.” Why use words or phrases that cause controversy? “Just do the right thing!” Well, it’s not that simple. In most cases, if you cannot imagine a different world, I doubt if you will be able to create one. That doesn’t mean that we will not make mistakes in implementing a vision, it just means that change involves choices.
It may seem like institutions have a choice of either affirming D.E.I. or not, but I don’t think that’s the correct way of formulating the alternatives. “Not” is not a choice. Institutions either affirm D.E.I, or they, at least implicitly, affirm something else. The decision not to do something keeps in place the status quo, which could also use a title. And what would be a good title for what many of us are used to? What about “U.M.E.” for “Unity, Merit, and Exclusion”? Let’s examine these alternatives.
Unity sounds like a good idea, but it needs a context. It’s hard to deny the dis-unity of our historical context, and its legacy. In this sense, diversity is not an idea, but a fact. So, what do we do with this fact? Make calls for unity? Well, you can bend people’s minds, but you cannot bend the facts. Another option is to make a distinction between social diversity and a shared humanity.
We share our humanity, but not the same social worlds. If we remember that diversity is a social category (for the most part), and not an essential human category, we could affirm both social diversity and human unity, or at least, as I argue in A Climate of Justice, we could create a civic sphere where citizens and civilians (from different social worlds) come together based on their shared humanity. If “unity” is understood correctly, in other words, it would facilitate diversity, rather than deny it.
Merit assumes that we have similar starting points, so to speak, and those who win get the prize. They may “win” through hard work, talent, or luck. In any case, what merit doesn’t recognize is that “winners” never win alone. Winners exist in a social world of many “others” who also play their role in maintaining a social world. Whereas “merit” is blind to these others, equity not only sees their place and their contribution to the larger whole but also the relationships among the parts of the larger whole and then ensures that the relationships are fair or just.
If unity assumes that we are all the same, and merit assumes that significant differences are based on “hard work, talent, or luck” then it is inevitable that those who are “other” will be excluded. In this framework, the only explanation for differences is that some work harder, have more talent, or more luck than others.
The fact that some have more privileges than others never comes to mind. Nor does the fact that some have been harmed more than others by the social traumas of American history. A commitment to unity prevents us from listening to the experiences of others. It also leads to a gross misunderstanding of how “merit” is distributed. Finally, it prevents us from fulfilling the promise of equal justice.
Just as unity and merit lead to exclusion, diversity and equity lead to inclusion. If we want inclusion (if we must have it for the sake of a climate of justice), then we must choose D.E.I. over U.M.E.